Submitted by Doris J. (Parker) Blais Bonnell, Genealogist, genealogy instructor, historian
Westborough – As a young child growing up in Westborough, I attended all the Westborough schools, which included three years at the Eli Whitney School. It wasn’t until years later, while studying my family’s genealogy that I realized that way back then, Eli Jr. would have been my first cousin.
In a recent article that was written by Alex Cornacchia, a writer for the Community Advocate, I turned my attention to have a closer look as to the part that Cousin Eli Whitney played in the cotton gin. How did this all come about? In my search, I learned quite a bit first about the younger Eli Whitney, who was born and raised on a farm in Westborough. It didn’t take long for the elder Eli Whitney Sr. to realize that his young son, Eli, had no interest in being a farmer. Like himself, young Eli showed more of an interest in being a machinist and inventing various items – at the age of 11, he was producing nails during the Revolutionary War; he made nails to hold ladies hats on their heads; he also made and fixed fiddles for the fiddlers of Westborough.
Unfortunately, at the age of 12, his beloved mother, Elizabeth (Fay) Whitney, passed away at the age of 35 years. Later, Eli Sr. remarried and, much to the young Eli’s chagrin, his stepmother had no respect or liking for him or his siblings. He was unhappy and left his Westborough home.
Years later, at the age of 27, Eli Whitney graduated from Yale College in New Haven, Conn. Today, Eli Whitney Jr. is buried at the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven and NOT in the town of Westborough.
While visiting the Nathaniel Greene’s widow, Catherine Greene, on her Mulberry Grove Plantation, in Savannah, Georgia, he met her husband, Phineas Miller and they became good friends, later partners. One evening, while there was a discussion on how better to produce cotton, Catherine Greene suggested that Eli Whitney, perhaps, could find a better way to separate the cotton seeds.
This Eli Whitney was able to do. In my findings, now, I do agree with Alex Cornacchia that Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin; however, he did make a huge improvement in the cotton gin (engine); later, after almost 10 years, he was able to patent it. By then, with all the legalities and pirating of his “gin,” Eli Whitney was near bankruptcy. It was at this time that he decided to manufacture rifles in New Haven. With regard to the cotton gin, because of Eli Whitney’s improvements with the “gin,” in 1792, the cotton gin was like 3,000 pairs of hands at work. At that time, the U.S. exported only 130,000 lbs. of cotton. By 1810, a few years later, 35,000,000 lbs. were exported. Today, cotton is still considered one of the most valuable crops in the U.S.
Lastly, after all the many contributions Eli Whitney made to our country, he passed away in January of 1825 at the age of 59 years; he had succumbed to prostate cancer. During his long illness, he invented tools that would help him with his pain. After his death, however, the Whitney family could not be persuaded to turn over these instruments. There is so much more that could be told about this wonderful American, who even though he found so many stumbling blocks in his life, it never discouraged or deterred him.